Treating voters as citizens -- and other lessons from my time in politics

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The most memorable moment of the 2015 federal election may be the release of a surveillance video capturing a candidate urinating into a stranger's coffee cup.

That episode comes to mind, oddly, as I think of what I learned during my recent two-year foray into electoral politics.

The coffee cup incident was part of what became a common theme in that campaign -- the "outing" of candidates who said or did anything that deviated even slightly from the party's image or messaging.

Of course, failure to distinguish between a coffee cup and a toilet is more than a slight deviation, and that particular candidate (a Conservative) was appropriately sacked.

But it strikes me that the iron hand of party discipline -- by which all three of our major political parties keep tight control on their messaging -- can also have the effect of limiting debate and discouraging independent thinking, to the detriment of our democratic system.

I ran (unsuccessfully) as the federal NDP candidate in Toronto Centre in the 2013 byelection and again in 2015, with the dream of putting into action progressive ideas I'd championed as a journalist. In jumping into politics, I realized I was giving up some of the freedom I'd enjoyed as a columnist and author to become part of a team with a collective message.

And so it was that I found myself, during last year's fiercely contested election campaign, abruptly challenged by Conservative candidate Michelle Rempel on CBC's Power and Politics.

Although it had no relevance to the topic under discussion, Rempel had dug up an old column of mine supporting a moratorium on the oilsands (echoing a call for such a moratorium by former Alberta Conservative premier Peter Lougheed, incidentally.)

Out of the blue, nine years later on national television, Rempel was trying to goad me into saying something negative about the oilsands.

I knew I was supposed to "pivot" -- that is, deftly switch to something in line with party messaging.

Host Rosemary Barton sided with Rempel and pushed me for an answer.

So -- to pivot or not to pivot? If I didn't pivot, I knew I'd be stepping into a trap laid by Conservative strategists to portray the NDP as anti-development. But if I did pivot, I felt somehow I'd be betraying the planet.

After a split second in which I saw my political life pass in front of me, I decided to side with the planet, saying, "a lot of the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground if we're going to meet our climate change targets."

My comment was pounced on by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as well as other Conservatives and Liberals, including future prime minister Justin Trudeau, who denounced my "extreme" position. (Trudeau undoubtedly struck a different tone last week when he met U.S. President Barack Obama, who recently said "we're going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground" to prevent large parts of the earth from becoming "uninhabitable in our lifetimes.")

A few commentators wrote that I'd simply stated a well-known scientific fact. A National Post columnist even insisted that my observation was so obvious it was "banal."

Nevertheless, for a few days, my comment sparked a minor media rumpus that seemed to reinforce the case for tight political messaging based on the rule, as reported by Susan Delacourt in her book Shopping for Votes: "Do not talk of sacrifice, collective good, facts, problems or debate."

In other words, avoid complexity and controversy -- or anything else that assumes the voter is capable of accepting the responsibility of citizenship.

Interestingly, however, the NDP reached the height of its public support last spring when it ignored this conventional wisdom, risking controversy and complexity by standing up against legislation that initially seemed popular -- the Conservatives' "anti-terror" legislation, Bill C-51.

Back in my perch in journalism (with no plans to run again), I'm wondering if we're well served by a conventional wisdom that has reduced the voter to a simple-minded consumer who's only out for herself.

Could it be that the voter is actually hungry to be treated as a citizen -- that is, treated as someone (to paraphrase Canadian author Gilbert Reid) who's an adult, has an attention span, some knowledge of history and empathy for others, is patient, open to debate, and even willing to make sacrifices for the common good?

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author. Her most recent book (with Neil Brooks) is The Trouble with Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World and How We Can Take It Back. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Mark Hill/flickr

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